My husband Charley was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer eight years ago. It came as a complete surprise. He was healthy, we thought. He had no symptoms.
We’d only been married seven years and our lives were filled with adjusting to the every day demands that come with a mid-life marriage, not the least of which, for me, were: stepchildren in college; stepchildren moving into apartments; stepchildren getting married; stepchildren buying houses; ex-wife manipulating stepchildren; stepchildren playing mommy-daddy games. Ah, for better or worse. Marital bliss! You get the picture. Never having been married before and living on my own for so long, the whole domestic experience was a bit overwhelming for me. But we moved along through it all and then one day, after a routine check-up, Charley was sent for a biopsy. We went to discuss the results and a doctor came into the room, introduced himself and said, “Well, Mr. Sweeney, you have cancer.” All of the every day, domestic woes melted into a small puddle of nothing and then evaporated. Cancer changes all perspective. Cancer dwarfs every pain in the ass…”How the hell am I going to get this done on time? What else can go wrong today?! I thought you were supposed to do it! Where the hell are my keys! That’s not my problem! She wants what?! We can’t afford this! WTF!!!…every single pain in the ass curveball each day throws at us. Cancer is the knuckleball of all knuckleballs. It’s the sucker punch of all sucker punches. It’s a full house in a stacked deck and Cancer trumps all!
And so, our lives changes. We traveled to Johns Hopkins’ Medical Center in Baltimore for a consultation. We flew back there for the operation. But the cancer was not confined to the primary site. Eight weeks of radiation and then the prognosis. “Mr. Sweeney, this is an aggressive cancer………You have five years.” The silence was cloying. It clung to the desk, the chairs, the ceiling, the floor, the walls. It reeked! Fresh air seemed to have been sucked from around us leaving a vacuum. I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly control the fear.
My father died of prostate cancer. We kept him at home in the end. No palliative care back then. He suffered terribly. The night he died, I slept on a lounge chair in the bedroom. I listened to his rasps and I spoke to him quietly in the dark. I held his hand. When my mother came to the room in the early hours of the morning, i walked out the door. He followed me. She had just moved near to the bed. I heard a final rasp and then, “Claremary, he’s gone.”
I was clutching Charley’s hand. We were both trying to make sense of what we’d just heard, but not yet processed. Five years were not enough to do all of the things we’d planned to do once the kids were finally settled. We’d been married for seven years and hadn’t begun to enjoy our lives together. Suddenly I sat up. I went from disbelief and fear straight into anger. I was furious! I looked across the desk at his surgeon and calmly stated, “We don’t accept this.” I knew there were all kinds of treatments and drugs and studies being conducted. I’d researched them late at night into the early hours of morning. I’d collected them in a folder on my iPad. I explained this to his doctor and made a promise. “Charley will be the best patient you ever had. We’ll work with you. He’ll do everything he’s told. We’ll go anywhere. If you place him in these studies, I promise you, he’ll be the first man cured of prostate cancer. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
And that was our new beginning. Priorities shifted. Traveling back and forth to Maryland;taking part in the most advanced clinical trials; MRI’s, Scans, X-rays, Blood work; Cryotherapy, buying a few months with each study; trying to stay ahead of the aggressive cells that always found a way in the end to circumvent each drug, each treatment.
We quickly learned to turn every trip to Baltimore into something enjoyable. our time in the hospital became incidental to any activity we had planned: A Baltimore Symphony Concert; Baseball at Camden Yards; roaming around Federal Hill or Feld’s Point eating ice cream; an excursion to Fort McHenry; dinner in a favorite restaurant; a rainy day at the aquarium. And in between our travels to Johns Hopkins, we enjoyed the comfort of our home and we fit in trips to all the places he’d dreamed of going.
On his 65th Birthday, I escorted him to the Eiffel Tower, timing it just right. When the sparkle lights went off, I applauded and whispered “Happy Birthday, Honey.” He’d always wanted to go to Normandy and we were there on June 6th for the annual ceremonies.
For his 66th Birthday, we went to Hawaii and spent the day at Pearl Harbor, another place on his wish list. He played the best golf courses on Maui. And there were rainbows in the sky and sunsets over the ocean every single day.
And then in June, a week after his 67th Birthday, one he was never supposed to see, we went down to JH and sat with his oncologist. The news was that Charley was in remission. The cancerous lymph nodes had died out; the tumor on his rib cage was shrinking and the bone was regenerating. Doctor Antonarakis declared Charley to be “his miracle patient”. I just nodded and said, “I told you so.”
Now, Charley is not cured, yet, but it’s just a matter of time. He is the most resilient person I have ever known. He has survived being abandoned by his dad when he was only two years old. In college, he was a world-class long distance runner breaking the 4-minute mile at Notre Dame in his sophomore year. The Olympics were in his future until, on a run, he was hit by a car during a sudden January snow squall. Dream over. His perfect marriage disintegrated one evening when he came home to discover that his wife was not happy being married to someone who was “just a special ed teacher.” She had found herself a professor and a life in academia was what she preferred to the family life he loved. That, too would become a distant memory, leaving him to celebrate birthdays and holidays alone. During our years together, I’ve watched helplessly as he weathered countless betrayals by the two children he cherished. And through it all, he has acted with integrity and loyalty. He is truly an honorable man. They have no idea how fortunate they are to have him in their lives.
I was not there for him during those past heart breaks, but I was with him the day he was diagnosed with cancer and we have taken that journey holding each other’s hands in good times and bad. I am encouraging him to write about this journey; to share it with others. I’ve read so many blogs in the last two weeks written by people suffering from MS, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimers…or written by their advocates and caregivers. In sharing their journeys with others, they give people hope and assurance. Charley is now working on his second draft and I am so very proud of him.